Building a Better Yard with Native Plants

By Shelby Deering | Photo courtesy of Geneva Lake Conservancy

For a yard that represents Wisconsin’s Natural beauty, many homeowners are turning to native plants. Simply put, native plants are those that occur naturally in a region, and they’re not just pretty to look at – they also provide several benefits to both the environment and the homeowner. Because of this, more and more people are opting to re-envision and landscape their spaces with native plants. It’s an approach that has become increasingly popular in the Geneva Lake area.

As part of this movement, people are choosing to forego manicured lawns, and the money and maintenance associated with them, in lieu of easy-to-care-for native plantings. “The look of a perfect, weedless, large stretch of lawn of non-native Kentucky blue grass is going out of fashion,” says Karen Yancey, executive director of the Geneva Lake Conservancy. “As property owners learn about the beauty, low maintenance, and environmental and wildlife benefits of native plants, they are converting at least part of their property to native plant gardens, that not only provide beauty, color and texture, but attract songbirds, butterflies and other wildlife.”

Native plants offer several advantages to the environment. Yancey explains that they provide a diversity of food and shelter to hundreds of species of birds, animals and insects found in southeastern Wisconsin. For example, songbirds feed on native Juneberry bushes, Monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs, and squirrels and many other mammals need oak trees to survive. In addition to these benefits, native plants have long roots that absorb water and pollutants, and hold soil in place during heavy rain events, preventing sediment from entering waterways.

Then there are the benefits for humans. Yancey says that native gardens reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides and fertilizers, which can be dangerous to adults, children, pets and wildlife. They filter and remove pollutants from water runoff and don’t require any watering after the first year. They also grow back year after year, considerably reducing lawn care costs compared to annual, non-native plantings.

Inspired by these myriad benefits, the Geneva Lake Conservancy started the Conservation@Home program in 2019 to educate property owners on how they can help care for local lakes and waterways by changing the way they manage their property. Yancey says that many people aren’t aware that plants that are native to southeastern Wisconsin, such as oak trees, and purple and yellow coneflowers, will grow better in our soils, require little or no pesticides or fertilizers and provide better habitats for wildlife and people. As part of their program, Geneva Lake Conservancy’s staff and trained volunteers spend time with property owners educating them on how they can make their land more ecologically healthy by planting native options and removing invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard.

Additionally, the Conservancy administers a Healthy Lakes program through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The program benefits landowners whose property borders lakes or other waterways, providing grants to cover up to half the cost of planting rain gardens or buffer strips of native plantings along a shoreline. “These gardens must have native plants with long root systems that absorb pollutants in stormwater before it reaches the lake,” Yancey says, adding that the Conservancy has planted more than 30 “Healthy Lakes” gardens along the shore of Geneva Lake on private properties.

To achieve this, the Conservancy has partnered with Burlington’s Northwind Perennial Farm. Together, the two have worked to create many of their “Healthy Lakes” rain gardens, as well as most of the gardens in the Conservancy’s new Mill House Native Plant Preserve, located in Fontana. The preserve contains a pollinator garden, a rain garden, a fern garden, a bird sanctuary, a sloped garden and an oak grove, making it the perfect place for homeowners to gain inspiration. “There are so many possibilities to create healthy, economical landscapes,” says Roy Diblik, co-owner of Northwind Perennial Farm.

The key to a successful landscape of native plants, Diblik says, lies in the garden and yard design. “We have to understand how the plants live together socially, and then we can place them in a good position to live well together,” he says.

Yancey emphasizes that, between the months of May and October, homeowners can schedule a Conservation@Home visit with two volunteers from the Conservancy. For a nominal fee (waived for members), these experts will spend one to two hours providing ideas on how to make the landscape more ecologically healthy and provide a list of suppliers for the plants they recommend.

For those just getting started, Diblik offers this advice: “Come to know plants as individuals. Know their growth rate from youth to maturity and place them together based on those characteristics. Each year that passes, you’ll be learning about the nature of all your plants, and their relationships with each other and to you.” He says the benefits will continue to multiply in the years to come, affecting every living thing on the property.

“These practices will constantly improve soils and water filtration, and the plantings will be beneficial to other living creatures,” he says.

What Is “No Mow May”?

The term “No Mow May” began in the United Kingdom in 2019 as a conservation initiative encouraging homeowners to stop mowing their grass (or to mow less) during the month of May, in an effort to provide a habitat and resources for bees and other pollinators. Since then, the concept has been sweeping the United States, and last year, the city of Lake Geneva passed a new ordinance allowing homeowners to participate in No Mow May. According to the ordinance, yards within the city limits may become tall and weed-laden throughout the month, without the penalties that would normally be imposed.

Lake Geneva is just one of many Wisconsin cities that now take part in No Mow May. In fact, Appleton was the first city in the United States to participate in the initiative. In addition, Genoa City, Fort Atkinson and De Pere have also jumped on the bandwagon. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. According to one 2020 study, researchers who examined the initiative in Appleton documented increases in the urban bee population, along with improved diversity among flowers and plants, which increases the bees’ ability to forage for food. The study also found that the community was enthusiastic about the program, and in addition to skipping mowing, residents tended to carry out other pollinator-friendly practices in their homes and neighborhoods.

While the program has demonstrated measurable gains that benefit pollinators, in Lake Geneva, the choice is up to each individual homeowner: No Mow May is entirely optional.

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